Christiane Wolf on how to practice sympathetic joy, or mudita — delight in the happiness of others. Illustrations by Carole Hénaff.
Imagine you have just received wonderful news. What’s one of your very first thoughts? Probably you’re thinking about whom to call to share your joy with.
Knowing that your loved ones will be happy for you and with you makes the joy even greater and more real. As the German proverb says, “Shared pain is half the pain, and shared joy is twice the joy.” So when you share your joy, it doubles for you—and you also give happiness to another! It’s a win-win in every way.
How can we invite more joy into our lives?
In the Buddha’s teachings, sympathetic joy or being happy for another’s happiness (Pali: mudita) is one of the four brahmaviharas, the four highest qualities of the heart. In recent years, the other three—loving-kindness, compassion, and equanimity—have received quite a lot of attention from practitioners, researchers, and the press alike. But sympathetic joy has gotten little attention. How can that be? Shouldn’t joy be the most appealing of the heart qualities? Not necessarily. Traditionally it is often referred to as the most difficult of the four. Sympathetic joy is complicated.
Who hasn’t had the unpleasant feeling of not being able to fully enjoy the happiness or success of a family member or colleague? Why did he win the great trip and not me? Or, Why is the boss praising her over the moon in front of the whole team and not me… Since we are good people, we feel ashamed of our feelings and maybe we feign happiness a little bit. Honestly, I’m so happy for you! No wonder we are not eager to deal with sympathetic joy.
Why is being happy for another often so challenging? It might be that we feel we’re already somehow missing out on life. So if someone else has good news, we may reflexively compare ourselves to them and feel envious, no matter how sincere our intentions are.
In addition, our feelings are often based on the belief that there is only a limited amount of happiness to go around and, therefore, when something good happens to another, there is less left for us. Although this argument has no rational foundation, it is surprisingly persistent.
How can we invite more joy into our lives? It is important to remember that we cannot make ourselves feel joy. We can, however, set the intention to be more open to joy and to cultivate it through repeated and patient practice. Here’s how:
Rejoice in Your Own Good Qualities
Many people are familiar with how in the practice of metta or loving-kindness, we begin with ourselves. In the practice of joy, we also begin with ourselves. If it is challenging to jump straight to joy, begin with just perceiving what’s there and what’s not, then gradually moving on to appreciation and joy.
Many of us find it hard to admit that we have good qualities, but this often makes it hard for us to see and rejoice in the goodness of others. So it’s important to learn to appreciate our own strengths, kindnesses, and generous actions. These don’t need to be big. It may seem like nothing special to us when we encourage or support someone in a difficult situation, for example, but it can become a source of joy if we allow ourselves to become aware of the goodness of our actions and feel that awareness in our body.
Rejoice in Your Life
Take in the good in your own life. Start with small things such as your beautiful teacup or the view outside your window, and expand to big things such as your health or your friends and family. As the poet Mark Nepo says: “The key to knowing joy is being easily pleased.”
Rejoice in the Happiness of Others
After experiencing joy for yourself, you can begin connecting with other people’s joy and allowing yourself to really feel it. Maybe you want to use a silent wish or blessing phrase such as, “May your happiness and good fortune grow and never leave.” Find your own words.
First, invite in joy for the happiness of a friend, a loved one, or a teacher—someone you really love. For most of us, it is a fairly easy step to feel sympathetic joy for our very inner circle. If my child is successful in school, it really makes me happy. If it’s someone else’s child, not so much. While there is nothing wrong with rejoicing in the good fortune of our loved ones, we limit ourselves massively if our joy ends there.
So move on to inviting in joy for somebody you don’t really know, then eventually expand the circle to somebody you find challenging. This expanding circle of joy can be done either as part of a formal meditation practice or here and there during the day, as you think of people or maybe encounter them in person.
Be gentle and patient with yourself as this practice often feels unfamiliar in the beginning.